Awash With Memories of Belize's Hurricane Hattie
Washington Post 1996

Every hurricane season blows back the Chronicler's memories of the night 35 years ago when Hurricane Hattie struck Belize, in what was then British Honduras. Just before Halloween in 1961, a heavy heat descended on the goodbye party for the colonial governor. In the living room of Belize City's only elegant ground-floor flat, with its fake fireplace, the glass pendants on the town's fanciest chandelier hung still as stalactites. In the garden facing the sea, guests in sweat-soaked jackets and dresses sipped gin and tonics as soggy canapes were passed around.

A major hurricane was blowing through the Caribbean, but the governor had word that it would strike to the north. Belize was safe.

Still, the sultry calm was saturated with a sense of foreboding. We worried about our house, built on 10-foot stilts but only a block from the sea in a land that does not rise far above the water's level.

The cable reports from Miami to the U.S. consulate gradually grew more terrifying as the storm twisted and turned south -- toward Belize.

The U.S. consul, after taking his sailboat up river, put his wife and children in the car and headed inland. His predecessor in Belize's Sept. 10, 1931, hurricane had stayed in the consulate and was washed out to sea, lost with 2,000 others. The death toll was so high because the town was then full of people commemorating the 1798 battle of Saint George's Cay, when British Honduran baymen wrested control of the cay from Spain.

But the vice consul -- my husband, Richard -- stayed behind. He secured the consulate on the ground level, moved the visa waiting list upstairs and tied down objects that might turn into missiles.

Only then did he come home to wrap his beloved Chickering piano in a tarpaulin. I bought candles and food, boiled water for drinking and packed necessities for our daughters, Claire, 1, and Camille, 3. We took refuge along with many others at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the only modern concrete office building in town.

Silent adults and occasionally crying children crowded an upper floor. We lighted lanterns, and as the winds grew we huddled behind desks. When corrugated roofing crashed through the windows, men made a barricade of bookcases.

Then came pounding and shouting -- the people from the top floor trying to force their way in. A telephone pole had crashed through the penthouse wall, and they had been washed down the stairway by the waves of rain. Only a few could fit behind our barricade, the rest huddled on the staircase and landing. In our refuge, there was no room to sit, only barely enough to stand.

The next morning the wind finally shifted and the sea washed in, frothing like a mad dog.

The town was all flotsam and jetsam -- a steeple sailing down the waves, a whole roof crazily dipping in and out of the water. A man swam along, pulling a string of whiskey bottles through the water. The police commissioner confiscated the evidence.

Richard half swam, half walked through the shoulder-high water to find the consulate unroofed but standing shakily. Desks, chairs and books were all washed up against one wall. Only the office flag hung straight on its pole.

The day after that, the children riding on our shoulders, we went home to find a miracle. Our house still stood -- though the wineglasses were filled with water and mud, the hammers on Richard's piano fell off as he played, and our water vat was stuffed with mud and debris. Soon our house was full of refugees who had been less fortunate.

There was no electricity, but one of our guests provided a kerosene stove, so I cooked up all the food in the freezer and the refrigerator. It was served in courses, by candlelight, on our best tablecloth, all of us grateful we were alive to eat it.

As the water began to subside, Richard went past the site of the governor's farewell party. Most of the apartment was gone; only one prism still hung on the chandelier.

Two days later, Camille had a raging fever. The girls and I were evacuated to Panama. Richard stayed behind, using our house as the consulate. He existed mostly on canned anchovies, Scotch and hard work.

We came back after a lonely Christmas. There were no telephones, only young boys who carried notes. Everything was in short supply. But the children and I were glad to be there.

Hattie in many ways changed the course of the country. Now British Honduras is the independent nation of Belize, with a new capital -- Belmopan, set safely up country on higher ground -- and with a flourishing tourist industry. But when the winds blow hard in hurricane season, I worry.

This was written by the wife of vice-consul Richard Conroy

Richard Conroy is the guy who wrote OUR MAN IN BELIZE, one of my favorite books on Belize

Richard Timothy Conroy’s Our Man in Belize is a fun, engaging memoir of his stint as US vice-consul to the impoverished British Honduras of the early 1960s, a period marked by the devastating Hurricane Hattie.


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by Constable Arthur Skeran
No. 415 Central Police Station P. T. 0.

October 31, 1961 was one of the finest days in the month
for the little village of Mullins River 27 miles south of
Belize. This popular resort village, only a mile in length and
100 yards wide, lay quiet, in the evening just before dusk.
Then, suddenly, the cry of "Hurricane is out, Hurricane
is out" echoed from the lips of the three hundred inhabitants
and the scene changed swiftly.

Night had just been settling in when I had returned
from a day's work on my father's ranch about one and a half
miles northwest of this village_ The sky was darkened with
a reddish glow hanging over the distant hills lying to the
northwest.

It was the custom of the young men to play cards and
drink at one of the saloons every night. So it was on the
night of the hurricane. We, my brother and myself, were
in the upstairs room of a saloon in the southern end of the
village with about 15 other young men ages 15-25. We were
not in the least bit troubled as we had never experienced
a hurricane before and did not know what it entailed.

It was about the tenth hour when the effect of the breeze
could be felt from the ordinary wind. Then the latest report
from a neighboring radio said the hurricane was heading
straight for British Honduras.

The wind increased. The zinc of the house began to
.give way and it was then that the crowd in the saloon became
annoyed because the rain was pouring through the roof and
it stung like the bite of an ant.

We then decided to go into the saloon. No sooner had
we done so when the verandah 9long with the step came
down with a crash, startling us a little.
We stayed there for what seemed like days. At intervals
we heard neighbouring houses going down with muffled
crashes.

By this time the water was rising very fast and was about
two feet in the saloon. It was about the fourth hour of the
morning and it was beginning to get clear.

As the house was now shaking rapidly, we decided to
run for the old station, one of the strongest and largest of
the one hundred and fifty houses; it was about 200 yards
from the saloon.

One by one we emerged from the saloon, struggling over
trees, zinc and pieces of houses. Fortunately, only one boy
was cut on the ankle by a zinc. A few minutes later however,
it was patched up by some daring females who rendered
first aid to him, and later to another boy who was hit
in the left eye by a whirling piece of board.

Despite the howling wind, the station stood its ground
but when the enormous waves slashed against it with the
water about waist high in the building, it could not restrain.
Down it went in pieces, leaving about seventy people to
battle for their lives. However, God Almighty is a
wonderful God, for by this time it was daylight and we were
able to see our way.

It was a piteous sight to see all the children crying so
mournfully. Some of them forced their way onto trees and
the waves slashed at their feet like hungry wolves.
At this time it seemed as if we were experiencing the
centre of the disaster for the rain was just pouring fantastically
and the wind at its worst causing zincs, boards, vats and
many other things to go flying like kites.
Assisting as much as we could, with the children, my
brother and I decided to swim inland, away from the sea.

Joined by eleven others of which two were men, one a woman,
and the rest children, we swam for what I presumed to be
two hours, resting at intervals with our burden, the six
children. We reached a good shelter, on some trees about
two feet above water and we decided to wait for the bitter
end. It was about this time that I remembered Noah's flood
and I thought that this must be a second one.

A few minutes later my attention was attracted by two
horns emerging from the water a foot and a half below. Immediately

I beckoned to my nearest companion, who happened
to be my brother. He tremblingly asked what this was, to
which I replied that I did not know. This extra-ordinary
creature came out of the water entirely. It had two horns
on a head like that of a cat with teeth like that of a wolf on
the body of a small dog. It was only visible for a few minutes.

After it disappeared we stood watching each other speechlessly.
Half nude, with the rain burning through our skin like
sharp needles, we waded our way through the water which
was now subsiding rapidly and only about waist high to the
village.

Arriving on the spot where the village once stood, only
two buildings were visible besides the new station and the
Roman Catholic mission.

It was now about 3 p.m., November 1. Not having anything
to eat from the night, we were now very hungry.
However, the only food there were cocoanuts and we
ate these for about three days before we got aid from the
U.S. Navy.

After checking our missing people we found out that
forty-three were absent. This was the worst day I ever
spent in my life in the little village known as Mullin's
River.

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THE EYE OF A KILLER

The eye of Hurricane Hattie did not pass over Belize City in 1961 as some people thought, however, we got the Western edge of that little white ring around the eye which is normally the most intense area of a hurricane. Mullins River was ground zero of Hattie. Before Hattie, Mullins River was a thriving town of about 2,000 people they say. Today, the town is now a village and they are barely holding on with about 40 villagers. Unfortunately, only about three of those villagers are in what we would call child-bearing age, one girl and two boys. The girl's plan is to leave the village after Sixth Form.

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Caye Caulker was hit too on October 31, 1961 it caused "the split".

"My grandma n mom told us many stories n that was half the island but heading south where the primary school is then east from school is another section where it split but not completely thus why water always high in that area behind my grandmother property"